College of LAS « Illinois

Cover Story

Brad Pitt, Take Notice

Statistics alum lands Moneyball job for the Cleveland Indians.

Andrecheck

Sky Andrecheck will never forget his first day with the Cleveland Indians as he approached the baseball stadium in anticipation of a game against the Chicago White Sox. He’ll also never forget the first time he stepped onto the stadium’s gem of a diamond, with the greenest of Kentucky bluegrass outfields meticulously manicured.

Andrecheck had dreamed of this day since his middle school years growing up in Elmhurst, Ill. However, while many boys in the 1990s dreamed of making the big play, robbing Ken Griffey Jr. of a home run on the warning track in the final inning of the World Series, his dream was a little different. He dreamed of working in a baseball team’s front office.

And that is exactly what happened.

Andrecheck, an LAS alumnus in statistics, has been a data analyst for the Cleveland Indians for four seasons now. He spends his days watching baseball and crunching numbers, trying to squeeze whatever advantage the team can get from the massive amounts of data collected on each player’s ability to hit, pitch, or field.

Andrecheck’s field of dreams is more like a field of data. His specialty is known as “sabermetrics”—the study of baseball using data—popularized by the best-selling book, Moneyball, and the movie by the same name starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. In Moneyball, Brad Pitt played Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who used statistics to boost team performance without the big-money backing.

“We’re in the same boat as the Oakland A’s,” Andrecheck says of the Indians. “We don’t have the money and resources of the New York and Chicago teams, so it’s important for us to squeeze every efficiency out of the game.”

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, he was once a long-suffering Cubs fan (last World Series title: 1908), and he says he wasn’t very good as a Little League outfielder, playing baseball until seventh grade. But he was good at math, so he became fascinated with the convergence of numbers and baseball.

More than any other professional sport, baseball has its fair share of iconic statistics, such as the number of Roger Maris’s home runs in a single season (61), the consecutive-game hitting streak of Joe Dimaggio (56), and the magic .300 batting average that every hitter aims for (.400 if you’re Ted Williams).

“Historically there has been that link between numbers and baseball because the game can be broken down into individual components—individual match-ups,” Andrecheck says.

Every time a particular batter faces a particular pitcher, you can go to the data to find out what that player did at the plate and what that pitcher did on the mound. Every single pitch thrown and ball hit is tracked. In other sports, there is so much interaction among multiple players that you cannot isolate individual match-ups.

But how did a statistics alum even wind up in professional baseball?

After receiving his bachelor’s in statistics in 2004 and his master’s in 2006 from the University of Illinois, Andrecheck took a job as a statistician for a data research company in Washington, D.C. But he still had a passion for baseball, so he began writing his own baseball statistics blog in 2009. Because he had only a few readers, he tried to drum up business by linking with other sites, and that’s when his work was noticed by baseballanalysts.com.

The Baseball Analysts website invited him to write a weekly blog, which soon led to writing a playoff blog for Sports Illustrated—all on top of a full-time job. When he saw that the Indians were hiring a new analyst, he jumped at the opportunity and landed the job just before the 2010 season. This past 2013 season was especially exciting, he says, because it was the first time the Indians made the playoffs since he joined the organization.

Andrecheck

During a typical game, Andrecheck puts on his team badge and finds a spot in special seats directly behind home plate, or up in the team suites—dream seats for a lifelong baseball fan. He has been on one road trip, but he attends every single home game, driving in from his home in Shaker Heights, just outside of Cleveland.

According to Andrecheck, he does not have much direct contact with players. Most of his contact is with General Manager Chris Antonetti, Assistant General Manager Mike Chernoff, and Manager Terry Francona. The team boasts three analysts, more than most teams.

Baseball has its long-standing statistical measurements, such as batting average, RBIs, and ERA, but today’s teams also have their own confidential data analysis systems. In addition, they use cutting-edge statistics in the public domain, such as Pitch FX and Hit FX.

Because a professional stadium has cameras mounted everywhere, he says they can track the movement, location, and speed of every single pitch. Using Pitch FX, analysts can then analyze the pitches and what happened at the plate. Hit FX, meanwhile, measures the ball coming off the bat, making it possible to analyze whether the at-bat had all of the properties of a solid hit, even if a fielder caught the ball. Measuring defense is tougher, but analysts can determine exactly where a ball lands and judge whether a fielder should have been able to reach it.

Andrecheck says he loved the movie Moneyball, even though it overplayed the tension between data analysts and traditional scouts; he says his office works well with scouts, who appreciate the data provided.

In addition, he says the scene in which Jonah Hill and close to a dozen guys pack the general manager’s office while a crucial trade is taking place just wouldn’t happen in real life. In fact, he says it’s surprising how much trade negotiating goes on through texting—not through phone conversations or face-to-face contact.

Despite the massive amounts of data collected in baseball, he says there are still intangibles that cannot be measured. The “outliers” principle says that really successful people are not only talented but they also have some good fortune and help along the way. Such luck cannot be measured.

Andrecheck certainly feels like he benefited from good fortune. “I came around at the right time,” he says. “Ten or 20 years earlier, there just wouldn’t have been these opportunities.”

So is the job as glamorous as Brad Pitt made it look like on the big screen?

“I don’t know if I’d say it’s quite as glamorous,” he says. “But it’s close.”

Editor’s note: In the original story, the first name of the Cleveland Indians manager was misstated. He is Terry Francona, not Tony.

Spring 2014
By Doug Peterson